Website Review

A Colony in Crisis: The Saint Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789

University of Maryland

A Colony in Crisis: The Saint Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789 is an translation and digitisation project by the University of Maryland. As noted in the name of the website, the project focusses particularly on French pamphlets associated with the 1789 grain crisis in Saint-Domingue and other surrounding French colonies.

Importantly, only partial English (and more recently, Haitian Creole) translations of each original document have been provided, with these usually amounting to a 500 to 700 word excerpt that provides the best overview of the document. Read alongside the short contextual information that’s also provided for every translated document, the content for every pamphlet clocks in at a very manageable 1000-ish words. As noted by the project team, this is a deliberate choice as students using the site will have “limited, but rich, engagement…without being overwhelmed by an abundance of contextual information.” This is a novel approach, being particularly suited to the site’s main audience of undergraduate students.

The translations themselves have been arranged into three ‘issues’, these being documents on:

1) the relationship between colonial officials on Saint-Domingue and France (12 documents)
2) broader transnational issues that provide further context for the period (6 documents)
3) life under slavery (6 documents)

With regards to the translations and digitisation efforts themselves, the project team has done a great job of making the content as easy to use as possible. As already noted above, each pamphlet page includes historical context for the document in question, as well as an excerpt from some of its pages. The English translations (as well as some helpful explanatory footnotes) are provided alongside a digital viewer of the original document, which is automatically set to open on the page where the translation begins. Site users can, however, navigate throughout the whole document if they wish – this being a useful feature for those who would like to read the original in full. For documents in Issue 1, users have the additional option of navigating to the Haitian Creole translation, which is also accompanied by an audio recording of the translation.

Translations aside, the site also includes some short historical background notes. The product of a research assignment that was given to students at the University of Maryland, these paragraph-long and well-cited notes aim to “provide clear and concise background information” about life in Satin-Dominigue during this time. Overall, these function mostly as quick reference guides to the region’s main players and places. Further to that, the project team have also provided a number of additional resources. These are mostly research blogs, though there is also an excellent and extensive Zotero library on the Haitian Revolution.

It is also worth mentioning at this point that A Colony in Crisis actually sits within the purview part of a much larger research project: The National French Pamphlet Planning Project, which aims to anaylse and digitise a number of French Pamphlets held by the University of Maryland Libraries. Taken in this context, A Colony in Crisis is an excellent user-friendly starting point to begin exploring this much larger trove of pamphlets. The clean, unfussy site design is a breeze to navigate, with the project team having gone through some lengths to ensure that the main content is presented in an easy to digest, non-intimidating format.

While the site was made with undergraduate students in mind, it is still more than possible to adapt some site sections for K-12 education. Using the Background Notes as model answers of a sort, educators can consider asking students to prepare similar ‘notes’ on a particular event. Groups can be assigned to particular types of sources (e.g. ephemera, documents, photographs etc.) so as to highlight how different kinds of sources can lead to specific interpretations. Further to that, teachers can also incorporate the Haitian Creole translations (as well as their excellent audio recordings) into lessons about colonialism and its ongoing impacts on languages and cultures.

In terms of undergraduate teaching, the site’s method of limiting each translated entry to about 1000 words is a great way to foster greater engagement with these sources without being too much to handle at once. Having these primary sources on hand also makes for richer, more immediate understandings of the time period, though given the partial translations, this resource will likely be most useful to students who either already have the language capabilities to further explore the original documents in full, or have some working knowledge of the period/region in question. To that end, these translations and their associated notes will be a very useful addition to units on colonial history, slavery, or French studies.

Reviewed by Joanna Lee, Monash University

How to Cite This Source

"A Colony in Crisis: The Saint Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789," in in World History Commons, [accessed August 9, 2022]
Black and white engraving of free people of colour in Saint Dominigue, two women and a man.
“...the site’s method of limiting each translated entry to about 1000 words is a great way to foster greater engagement with these sources without being too much to handle at once.”